I have a vested interest in public education. I come from a family that was heavily involved in our town’s public education system and most of my closest friends are teachers. Education just runs in my blood, but I, like most teachers, will usually be one of the first ones to admit that there are problems with the education system. All systems, whether public or private, have problems, but then you come across schools like T.M. Landry, the subject of the documentary Accepted, and you’re left feeling incredibly polarized.
Through what I can only describe as social media campaigns, the private school propelled itself into the mainstream media in two separate instances. First, they had a ludicrous 100% college acceptance rate with 1/3 of their graduating seniors going to Ivy League schools, which was the talk of all of the daytime talk shows. Then, a few months later, a New York Times article exposed the emotional and sometimes physical abuses that took place at the school, as well as how the head of the school, Mike Landry, faked transcripts to boost his student’s acceptance rate.
Accepted follows several of what I can only call the survivors of the 2019 senior class and how they each dealt with the fallout of Landry’s revelations.
Director: Dan Chen
Release Date: June 12, 2021 (Tribeca Film Festival)
The first third of the documentary shows us the image that T.M. Landry wants to send out to the public. Mike Landry is openly allowing the press to come into his school to see how radical, in a good way, his practices are. There are no set class schedules and he allows students to go at their own pace, and Landry shows just how passionate he is about trying to elevate the students, who are primarily African-American, to a higher living than the people around them. He doesn’t want them to end up like everyone else, so they need to push themselves to be successful. Landry states that if you’re not winners, you’re losers, and there’s nothing more to it than that in his eyes.
In reality, his older students see through the facade and the spiel he peddles around. He makes students openly cry and yells at them on a regular basis. He calls out individual students and belittles them in front of their peers. For the younger students, many view what he does for them as nothing more than a glorified daycare with no actual education taking place. Landry would post impressive videos to social media boasting the complex math equations that they can solve, but the reality is that in most other subject areas they are woefully behind their peers in a traditional high school environment.
I have to appreciate the rug pull that director Dan Chen was able to put on with Accepted. At first, you think that this documentary would be a look at how this non-traditional school is able to accomplish things that districts could only dream of, rocking the education world. Instead, it’s an expose about everything that’s wrong with for-profit education, as we follow one former student who spends months trying to get reimbursed for her tuition after she left. We see the image that Landry tries too hard to project and how the school board, as well as several parents, will do whatever it takes to maintain that good image.
Accepted doesn’t hold back at its critique of Landry, but it never goes so far as to completely vilify them. Instead, it focuses on the students. You can kind of tell that halfway through the documentary the intent of it shifts. While we follow four students for most of the film, the earlier scenes are done on location. We follow these students as they drive to take the ACT, or participate in a class at Landry, or study with friends. By the second half, we move to more of an interview style with the high schoolers sitting and just describing their experience and the fallout of their education and the damage it did.
Some of the students were mentally scarred from it, believing they were losers for quitting. Some couldn’t return to a normal education because they were so far behind. Others just didn’t attend school afterwards. And while some of the students are justifiably furious at Landry and his school, others have a more complicated relationship. Just because the methods were questionable and underhanded, does that belittle the results? Under-privileged students were still able to get into Harvard, Yale, and Stanford among many others. Their lives were changed for the better.
Accepted is a criticism of the modern education system. As someone who knows a lot about educational pedagogy, I can say that Landry was solely focused on teaching students how to succeed at tests. School is so much more than just learning how to do well on the ACT or SAT as you develop social skills and reach out and try new experiences in the form of clubs or electives. But it also fairly points out that for underprivileged kids, the odds are stacked against them.
As the documentary begins to end and we reach the graduation of the class of 2019, the college admission scandals that ultimately sent Lori Loughlin to jail breaks headlines across the country. As the students react to it, some of them realize that this is what they were up against. They had to compete against white people paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to send their kids to a prestigious college that they probably didn’t even want to attend. Meanwhile, they were busting their butts off just to be considered for a chance to attend, with some starving themselves to focus on studying more. Both Landry and Loughlin were wrong in their actions, but they weren’t malicious in their goals. He wanted what was best for his students, but he instead damaged them and tainted their potential futures. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions after all.
Accepted is a documentary that I think anyone who is involved in education should see. It firmly reminds us that schools and education exist in order to teach children how to succeed. It shows how people can become misguided in their pursuit of what’s best for their students. Ultimately it presents a picture of a complicated school with dubious morals, but one that helped as many people as it harmed. And that’s a fascinating subject to learn about.